The Yangzte River stretches for nearly 4,000 miles. // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): Myanmar is just one of the far-flung locales that river cruises visit. // © 2015 AmaWaterways
As river cruising matures, cruise lines are looking beyond their core European business to exotic destinations in order to provide new experiences for repeat guests.
River cruises offer one-time unpacking and access to the culture and wildlife along a region’s banks. In exotic destinations, however, the sector offers more — security while venturing into the heart of ancient cultural centers and wildlife concentrations, along with the ability to come “home” to luxurious accommodations and dining.
These cruises also help passengers quickly connect with the essence of an unusual locale. River cruises, which generally embark from large population centers with good airlift, quickly transport travelers to remote destinations that would be difficult to access any other way. Sailings are often paired with land excursions to ensure guests enjoy the full range of an area’s iconic features.
Typically, river vessels are leased or chartered, and finding a matching partner can be the deciding factor in whether a company chooses to enter a region. For example, Dan Mahar, CEO of Tauck, says that there are emerging destinations he would like to offer guests, but he has to have assurance that the product will be of the same quality that Tauck offers its customers in Europe. Cruise lines are also concerned about balancing demand and supply on rivers. Still, the number of ships and exotic destinations are rising.
Among the companies adding to their exotic offerings this year and next are AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Haimark Ltd., The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, Scenic Cruises and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
Patrick Clark, managing director for Avalon, says the company’s 2015 cruises outside Europe have grown 18 percent over 2014. Likewise, Haimark, which launched last year, has grown to nine ships in service on the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Ganges and Amazon rivers.
Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, says that exotic river cruises face some headwinds with consumers because of political and/or economic concerns in certain regions. However, Viking River Cruises will return to the Ukraine and Dnieper River in 2016; Abercrombie & Kent, Uniworld, Viking and Avalon are among companies sailing in Egypt.
Six continents offer river cruises — Antarctica is the exception — and four are considered exotic for American travelers: Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. Below are some of the popular destinations for river cruises.
Not long ago, there was a saying that you could walk across the Nile by jumping from one cruise ship to the next. But political turmoil and violence have sharply reduced Egypt’s tourism, which in 2010 numbered a whopping 14.7 million people. The industry is just now showing small, cautious signs of returning to the region.
Egypt river cruises usually sail between Luxor and Aswan, calling in Kom Ombo, Esna and Edfu, to see famous monuments such as Valley of the Kings and the Karnak temple complex. Itineraries sometimes include a cruise on Lake Nasser to see the relocated Nubian temples, including the famous Abu Simbel. Trips are usually coupled with visits to Cairo and the pyramids and Great Sphinx of Giza.
River cruising in the rest of Africa tends to center on traditional local culture and wildlife. Five years ago, Variety Cruises launched West African river cruises from Dakar, Senegal, into Gambia, and AmaWaterways has an established niche with cruises on the Chobe River, the boundary between Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
The great Yangtze River flows 3,915 miles from the Tibetan Plateau across China to Shanghai, so cruise ship design — without the limitations of European locks and dams — allows for all-balcony vessels with high atriums and alternative dining venues. Most itineraries include a land-based package into Beijing, Xian and/or Shanghai. In addition to exploring modern cities and legendary sights, guests travel to villages, temples and markets accessible only by river. Sailing through the brilliantly green misty mountains and dramatic gorges of the 150-mile Three Gorges region is a poignant experience where clients can see tremendous engineering and submerged villages.
Leslie Fambrini, president of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., says her Asia river cruise experience was not only marked by the physical beauty of sailing through Three Gorges, but also “visits with the local people, some displaced by the Three Gorges Dam, which offer an interaction and sense of engagement that define why we travel.”
Flowing from the Tibetan Himalayas, the Mekong River runs 2,700 miles to the sea in South Vietnam. The banks hold a riot of plant life, animals, birds and fish, second only to that of the Amazon. Typical cruises in this area combine cities such as Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City with river communities in Cambodia and Vietnam, and usually feature the amazing Khmer temples of Angkor Wat.
Kaplan of Premier River Cruises believes these cruises are often limited unnecessarily by seasons.
“Agents are just reluctant to sell the destination in the months where it is either rainy or hot and rainy,” he said, pointing out that summer weather in Hawaii and the U.S. Southeast and Southwest can be quite similar.
Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, describes how a flotilla of 600 ships cruised the Irrawaddy River before World War II, when the Burmese destroyed their fleet to keep it out of the hands of Japanese invaders. After 50 years of isolation, far fewer vessels — but much more luxurious ones — cruise this region. Itineraries are typically one-, three- or four-day sailings between Mandalay and Bagan, with extended stays in both, or seven-night sailings between Bagan and Yangon, highlighting the culture and enchanting scenery to travelers.
Today’s river cruise lines have recently arrived on the Ganges, and agents caution that trips here are best for very experienced travelers. A typical river cruise itinerary in India, when packaged with a seven-night land tour, offers a 12-night trip between New Delhi and Kolkata. Land extensions take guests to the Golden Triangle: Jaipur, Agra and the Taj Mahal and Delhi. Uniworld president Guy Young recommends experiencing the 5,000-year-old civilization while based on an all-suite ship and overnighting in spectacular hotels.
Travelers in Australia can board the 120-passenger paddlewheeler Murray Princess, operated by Captain Cook Cruises, sailing three-, four- or seven-night cruises from Mannum, near Adelaide. Guided tours of Ngaut Ngaut Conservation Park and nature and wildlife sanctuaries are included, along with winery tours and the chance to see kangaroos, wombats and birds — not to mention dramatic gorges and cliffs.
The mighty Amazon can be unexpectedly serene and beautiful. The huge expanse of water supports a Noah’s Ark of animal life, from monkeys and sloths to jaguars and otters. Although the huge river accommodates the large ships of seagoing cruise lines, river cruise ships tend to be small and provide opportunities to swim with pink river dolphins and fish the lakes.
Airlift dictates the centers for cruising here: Manaus in Brazil and Iquitos in Peru. Narrow tributaries bring guests close to the extraordinary birds and plant life, as well as allow them to visit indigenous people, who trade crafts for everything from barrettes to batteries. There are also quick flights to Machu Picchu and Cusco, Peru, after four- to 10-day cruises in the rainforest.
Tom Markwell, managing partner for sales and marketing for Haimark, believes exotic cruise products will always have a role in the marketplace.
“The traveler’s desire to find new destinations to experience in this format will only grow as the world gets smaller,” he said.